Cat Army Protects Vermeers from Vermin at the Hermitage Museum

06/29/2009 at 02:00 PM EDT

Cat Army Protects Vermeers from Vermin at the Hermitage Museum
No one gets a more exclusive look at the priceless works of art at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, than the 60 or so cats who dutifully guard its halls. These aristo-cats paw through the museum to keep vermin away from the Vermeers and other precious paintings.

The history of cat guards saving the museum's collection from rodent mischief goes back 200 years, according to National Geographic. The museum, once a Tsarist palace, had a vermin problem so out of control that Peter the Great's daughter, Elizabeth, ordered her minions to find a few good furballs to put the rodents in their place. The four-legged warriors are no longer able to freely roam the galleries but still carry out their missions in the museum basement, where they both live and work.

"They execute so-called preventative activities so that rats and mice will stay away or are kept at a minimum," museum worker Marie Khaltunen tells National Geographic through a translator. Though tourists are not allowed into the cats' living quarters, "All the museum visitors can see them in the summer," Khaltunen adds. "Generally they walk on the square and on the embankment, and also they come out into the big yard."

The number of cats at the Hermitage has jumped dramatically due to an increased homeless animal population. And the museum has launched a campaign to find loving homes for some of them. St. Petersburg resident Evgeny Abrikosov recently visited the museum, looking for a special gift for his wife: a feline from the Hermitage. "A cat [from] here is not ordinary," he said through a translator. "this is a cat from the Hermitage. Just think of that, a Hermitage cat lives in your house."

Click here to watch National Geographic's video from the Hermitage.

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